Everything from the pronunciation of his name, to his contrasting yet motivational on and off-ice personality, to his unique butterfly on the ice, is quite deceiving about this special goalie from the Czech Republic. And so after posting my Top-10 keeper league goalie prospects just a few days ago…yeahh…I’m already sliding him up a spot or two.
I speak of none other than Michal Neuvirth. He’s the Great Deceiver, the one that shows so much promise but says so little. He started the year with the ECHL’s South Carolina Stingrays until the Washington Capitals conjured him a couple of times due to various injuries to various goalies. And now he has the Hersey Bears one win away from capturing the AHL Championship over Manitoba, thanks in large part to a 9-1 home record and four shutouts.
His solid positioning has been well-documented, along with an outstanding poise for a 20-year-old. You can also make attitude comparisons to the baby-faced Chris Osgood, which lends a hand to Neuvirth being labeled for a very luscious NHL career. He’s silent on the ice and let’s his play do the talking. But in the locker room he’s more animated and verbally enthusiastic. But one thing that truly makes Neuvirth so deceptive is his unique butterfly.
Well, it’s not really that much different than any other goalie’s butterfly. But take a look at this photo – it’s a great example of how he comes off so calm, collected and composed. You see the action around him going a million miles an hour but Neuvirth is in his classic butterfly position, sitting back and docile, almost like a sloth or a manatee. Look how tight he is and look at how anchored in his crease he is. Sure, it’s just one photo, but the butterfly is a routine and automatic movement, so to see it once is to basically see it a million times. The angle at which he almost seems to sit back on his rear-end is unique and gives him better balance and better "gap" coverage...meaning no holes!
Not only is his butterfly a thing of simple and calm beauty, the kid actually balances that with brilliance and flair. With acrobatic and very quick appendages, Neuvirth results to them only after his solid positioning fails to get the job done. And for a six-foot goalie, he plays high enough in his crease to create the same illusion of being 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds. Simply put, he’s very unassuming and inconspicuous. He sits back there, calm and relaxed, waiting for the game and the play to come to him. It’s kind of like what I saw in Steve Mason and Cam Ward this season.
One reason Neuvirth is able to display so much composure is due to the trials he’s already faced in his career. It was only two seasons ago that he helped Plymouth win the OHL Championship (2006-07) by compiling a 14-4 record and .932 save percentage. But all of a sudden Plymouth traded him to Windsor early in 2007-08, which was almost as shocking as when he was traded once again, just a few months later, to the Oshawa Generals.
On top of his trepidatious travels that year, Neuvirth was tagged by a trio of injuries. He pulled a hammy at the World Juniors and suffered a pretty serious concussion later that season. But he was healthy in time for the playoffs, where Neuvirth once again posted great stats (1.50 GAA and .959 save percentage) during a first round four-game sweep of Ottawa. It was in Game 5 of the second round that he suffered a season-ending knee injury that required surgery.
Regardless of those injuries, Neuvirth is 100% healthy now, which calls for some very interesting discussions. Who has more long-term value; Simeon Varlamov or Neuvirth? What do the Caps do with all this goaltending depth? Who goes where?! It’s interesting fodder to say the least…and I will love watching it all unfold.
Jose Theodore and Brent Johnson are both 31, while Varlamov and Neuvirth are 20. Johnson is soon to be an unrestricted free agent and made $825,000 while Neuvirth and Varlamov are set to make $850,000 as part of their three-year entry-level contracts. This salary cap coincidence is more fuel to the fire and gives the Washington Capitals a rare, yet very welcome situation to deal with.
If you ask me, I see Varlamov winning the job over Neuvirth…not because of talent, but only because management wanted to give Neuvirth another year of development in the OHL, but that didn’t happen. So they will want to give him at least a full year as the #1 starter in Hersey. Daren Machesney is also signed to an entry-level contract but fits well in the backup role. And since Theodore is sure to have some kind of breakdown at some point, I won’t be surprised to see Neuvirth get called up more than a few times next season.
As for who is more valuable in the long run…I have to side with Neuvirth. Personally I am an advocate (as you all know) of smaller, more agile goalies. This is not to say that Varlamov is some kind of hulking beast that can’t move, but Neuvirth has elite skills in a few different areas and will only get bigger and stronger. It’s honestly the perfect debate; they’re the same age, they’ve both proved a lot this year. Who do you think is more valuable and why?!
FIVE THINGS WE LEARNED ABOUT GOALTENDING FROM GAME 5 OF THE STANLEY CUP FINALS
Dobber literally took the words right out of my mouth on Sunday with his rambling about Mathieu Garon and Marc-Andre Fleury. I couldn’t have said it better myself. And so here are my expanded thoughts on that game, in what is my Top 5 things you learned about goaltending from watching Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
1. Paddle-down is dead , and has been for a very, very long time. Fleury getting burned twice in the game because of this is something I thought I’d never see. Going paddle down when the puck is coming from the high slot is HORRIFIC goaltending. Fleury emulates a turtle when that happens - he hides by tensing and shriveling up. He lost sight of the puck, his timing was off and his confidence was quickly shattered. Yes, despite all the confidence and momentum gained this post-season, it can all go to hell in less than 40 minutes of play.
2. Fleury should have been pulled after the fourth goal against. I was blown away that Dan Bylsma did NOT get him out of there after that goal. It was not only a gong show out there, but he was losing confidence every single second that ticked by after the fourth goal was allowed. I was not surprised to realize that he was basically the exact same as Chris Osgood in Game 4...deep in the crease, not confident and shaky from the start.
Bylsma should have recognized the signs of a goalie that has absolutely lost control of their game mentally and positionally and then get him out of there right away. Do goalie coaches have the ability to contact head coaches during the game from the press box?! Because you never know how soon the next goal or blunder will come and make things much, much worse. And believe me, that fifth goal, especially coming on the road, made things look much, much worse for Fleury.
3. Thank you NBC and Pierre McGuire for bringing some amazing goalie insight to the pre-puck drop show. First I see a couple of actual shots of the kick-plate construction along the boards, one that shows some type of thin wood backing that was used to reinforce them?! Now I didn't happen to catch the whole shot, it was more of a two-second glimpse...so if you know what they said exactly I would love to know.
Secondly, McGuire says, “Marc-Andre Fleury is not happy with the boards system here in Detroit…” which proves so much more about Fleury’s meltdown. Not happy with the board system? Where does that come from? Was he complaining to the media about it? If so, he’s focusing way too much on it. Sure they are “lively” but are they worth bringing up to the media? Fleury literally beat himself in Game 5…the outcome was written on the wall.
4. The Beast Tracker is actually quite beneficial! This thing really brings to surface the most important factors in playoff goaltending. Just look at Fleury’s save percentage while shorthanded and then in the third period. Then compare them to Osgood’s numbers. What was the difference in Game 5? Osgood and the Red Wings FINALLY didn’t allow a power play goal against …and they caught Fleury sleeping in the first period.
If you go back and look at the box scores for Detroit this post-season, you’ll see that Osgood had been allowing power play goals on almost a game-by-game basis. Special teams have been the thorn in Detroit’s side in all four series and his short-handed save percentage proves just how bad they’ve been. So Game 5 proved that Osgood once again has bounced back from a bad outing to show that he is beyond a doubt the most mentally tough goalie playing right now. He has the heart of a lion and that is why he has been my hero and will continue to be forever! Read these great quotes from Ty Conklin about both Fleury and Ozzie.
5. Mathieu Garon is still an elite #1 goaltender. Talk about a guy who hasn’t gotten the breaks…everywhere he goes, he gets swept under the carpet, some way, somehow. When will a team finally give him a legitimate shot at being a #1 goalie without yanking him after only two games in a row?! This guy could play 70 if he wanted and has the quickest feet in the league. His legs rotate so quickly that he does what Fleury SHOULD have done … use his legs to get out on top of his crease and take away the upper portion of the net with his chest and arms.